Let’s say that you are familiar with a particular artwork from images in books or online. Is there anything to be gained from seeing it in person? The urge to see the “real thing” seems like such a straightforward idea. The painting purists will tell you, quite correctly in most cases, that photographs seldom manage to do a painting justice; the texture and brushstrokes are lost, the colours dulled, the sense of scale nonexistent. Performance and installations practically depend on an audience of course, although video and film can come close. But what about Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain — his famous 1917 ready-made, consisting of a urinal autographed by the fictitious R. Mutt?
I’d seen the famous scratchy black-and-white photo of Fountain countless times. Before I walked into the Mori Art Museum on Thursday, I knew what to expect; or at least thought I did. Seen in person, there were not likely to be any revelations about the texture of the painted signature or the exact colour of the porcelain. No surprises. The piece is really about an idea, after all. But nonetheless, I had the inexplicable drive to see it in person, and the rest of the “French Window” works were an added bonus. But the encounter turned out to be more interesting than I expected.
For most people interested in contemporary art, the importance of Fountain is hard to understate. The argument it sparked among artists blew everything open, established the now-well-accepted notion that the idea is as important, or more important, than the object itself, and suggested that the choice of the artist — the simple act of choosing the thing and its context — is an act of creation. All of the fascinating, playful and contentious aspects that make contemporary art so vibrant? They all began with a urinal.
Now, “French Window” is not a show about Duchamp, of course. It is about the Marcel Duchamp Prize, France’s largest award for contemporary art, now celebrating its first decade. So the inclusion of Duchamp’s work functions as the set-up for what is otherwise a very current set of works. Fountain had been placed among other ready-mades in the very first room, and next to it was a card explaining that it belonged to a collection in, of all places, Kyoto.
Kyoto? That struck me as odd. Surely French collectors would never part with an item so important both artistically and culturally. And as it turns out, they didn’t. At least not intentionally.
The sculpture on display at Mori is a copy: one of several made by Duchamp himself in the 50s and 60s. The original was never actually shown. Duchamp entered it in an exhibition by The Society of Independent Artists, an avant-garde art association of which Duchamp himself was a key member. But he entered the piece under a pseudonym, and Fountain’s status a “ready-made” was rejected by many of the group’s other members. During the exhibition, which promised that all works entered would be shown, Fountain was “hidden from view,” and disappeared shortly after, never to be seen again. According to Wikipedia, it may have even been thrown away by the man who not only defended its worth, but provided the world with its only photograph: Alfred Stieglitz.
For me, there was something both disappointing and delicious about this discovery. I had arrived to see a one-of-a-kind work, and ended up seeing a known duplicate; the sanctioned forgery of an object intended to highlight the importance of idea over form. In the end, I was just as far from the “real” object as I had been looking at its photograph.
Or maybe even further. Stranger still is the fact that eight of the eleven duplicates Duchamp made were not even actual urinals, but pottery painted to resemble the original (now out-of-production) ceramic. So there we all were, looking at what was essentially a work of artisanship designed to look like a ready-made work of art that had gone missing almost a century ago — the original had never even been shown in public in any firsthand way, and yet still managed to change the art-world. Fountain had fallen apart right in front of my eyes in a little deconstructed heap, its “realness” flying off in every direction until there was nothing left but the idea of it.
It was perfect.
(The show wasn’t bad either. And perhaps, one day, I’ll tell you about it.)